In the throes of flagrant opioid withdrawal, she was beginning to despair, but the prayers of friends and strangers lifted her up.
Past three o’clock in the morning, two weeks before Easter. I sat in the darkness of my car, parked in my driveway, feeling as if I were going insane. I’d been awake all night. I couldn’t stop twitching, moving, grabbing at myself. My mind raced. Bad voices clawed the edges of my brain. I tried everything I could to stop them. Racing up and down my attic stairs. Doing frantic jumping jacks. Bicycling my legs in the air. But it was hopeless. On the streets, they had a name for what ailed me: dope sick.
At 64, I was in withdrawal from opioids. For 28 years, I’d been prescribed OxyContin for pain relief. I have a genetic condition that causes invasive, noncancerous tumors to grow on nerve cells all over my body. I’d undergone 34 surgeries over the years to remove the worst of them. But the ones that remained caused constant pain.
At first, the OxyContin was a godsend. It allowed me to keep my job as a nurse and to live a normal life. But my town in Appalachia had been gripped hard by the opioid crisis. My insurer stopped paying for OxyContin. My doctor said new insurance rules required me to enroll at a pain management clinic for a new prescription. A specialist there took me off OxyContin entirely and put me on a new, weaker medicine for nerve pain to be taken every 12 hours.
“It’ll help you more than the OxyContin did,” the specialist assured me. “You might have some withdrawal symptoms as you go from one drug to the other. They shouldn’t be too bad.”
The last three days had been hell on earth! I’d been taking OxyContin for a long time. While I’d never deviated from my doctor’s instructions and she’d tapered me off slightly before I quit cold turkey, I’d built up a strong dependency. Deprived of OxyContin, my body panicked. It ached like a giant toothache. Pain signals coursed up and down my arms and legs. I called the clinic. I was told to tough it out. How? I shook with chills. My skin felt as if insects were crawling all over it. I couldn’t keep anything down. Worst of all, my mind buzzed with bad voices. They taunted me endlessly.
It’s going to be like this forever, Roberta….
You’re going crazy.
There’s no point trying. Just give up already.
No one else knew what I was going through except my sister Rebekkah. She’d come to stay with me after I left the pain clinic. I’d sent a brief e-mail to friends in my writing group, asking for prayers because I was going through a “rough time.” But I kept it vague. I was ashamed of my dependence on OxyContin. What would people think?
No one loves you.
Even God’s left you.
You’re all alone.
Not sure what else to do, I’d banished myself to my car in the early hours of the morning. It was usually the place I did my best praying. Now that I was here, though, I couldn’t think. I could barely get Jesus’ name out. I had too much trouble breathing. I was going to die in this car. God, where are you when I really need you? Have you totally left me this time?
The dashboard clock told me it was four o’clock. A piece of advice someone had told me ages ago came to me: “It’s the friends you can call at 4 a.m. who really matter.” I thought of my dear friend Sue. Her husband used oxygen for a lung condition—maybe it would help? We usually talked every day, but I hadn’t heard her voice since this whole withdrawal thing. She’d probably been calling, worried sick. I hadn’t checked my voice mails, e-mails or mailbox for days. I dialed her number on my cell and told her my situation.
“Come right over,” Sue said. “I’ll get the oxygen set up.”
Rebekkah drove me to Sue’s house in the cold, black night. Sue tucked me into a makeshift bed on her sofa and got the oxygen. I breathed it into my greedy lungs. She parked her chair by the sofa and massaged my agitated legs. Within minutes, I was no longer starved for air. I began to relax. Three hours later, I woke up to the smell of coffee and raisin toast. I’d slept for the first time in days.
Sue fixed up the guest room so I could stay with her as long as I needed. The pain and panic persisted. I didn’t know how much longer I could survive. I thrashed wildly at night, hitting my head against the brass headboard. Sometimes I awoke to the sound of Sue playing Easter hymns on her piano, convinced I was hallucinating.
Then, four days before Easter, something changed. I awoke in the middle of the night with the most bizarre feeling. As if I were being held, wrapped in a giant hug. Safe and secure, buoyed by some force. As if being lifted up somehow. Tentatively, I listened for the voices. They were still there. But they were different this time.
You’re going to make it, Roberta!
Don’t be afraid.
You aren’t going to just survive. You’re going to thrive.
This new medicine is going to work wonders!
I felt strong. Confident. Courageous. It defied all logic! I grabbed my journal and wrote down everything I was hearing. These voices…they weren’t mine.
The pain didn’t immediately subside. But I knew, without a doubt, I was going to be okay. On Easter morning, I awoke to Sue practicing the piano again, singing the hymn “He Arose.” I zipped up my jacket, poured myself a cup of coffee and found my way out to the front porch. It was daylight. I climbed into Sue’s big wicker porch swing and listened to the birds singing. Across the street, I could see a wife planting flowers as her husband washed windows. Yellow and white daffodils had pushed their way through the wintry soil. Pink dogwoods were in glorious bloom. It had been ages since I’d seen or contemplated such things. I thought again of the voices. The good ones, now running through my head regularly.
There’s nothing to fear, Roberta. You’re going to make it!
I knew this time I would.
After 10 days at Sue’s, I was well enough to return home. As I rejoined the living, I finally listened to my voice mails, read my e-mail and collected the big stack of colorful envelopes and packages from my mailbox. I hadn’t told a single soul, outside my inner circle, what I was going through. And yet dozens—many dozens—of people had prayed for me anyway.
“I sensed you’re in crisis, Roberta,” one friend wrote. “I’m praying for swift healing.”
“I felt moved to pray for new pain relief for you,” another e-mailed.
Wanda in Montana placed a lovely lace handkerchief inside healing passages in her Bible, prayed the verses and then tucked the handkerchief inside a gorgeous card she sent me. Peggy and Mike in upstate New York mailed me a comfort blanket they’d prayed over. Karen in Georgia had been pausing by a bush of red roses every morning to talk to God specifically about me. The prayers got more and more specific.
“I suddenly felt you need God’s peace, Roberta. Lord, I am praying that you be with my friend and comfort her.…”
“Dearest Roberta, I knew you were in trouble, so I gathered my entire church and we were anointed with oil and prayed for you.”
Readers of my stories that have appeared in Guideposts and Mysterious Ways wrote in too.
“I found your address online and had to write to say that I am praying for you,” wrote a woman named Pauline from Michigan. “I sense you are in difficulty and am asking God for your healing from pain.”
The prayers went on. And on. I went back and checked the dates on the messages, then compared them to the dates in my journal. They were all dated a few days before Easter. The very time I’d felt inexplicably held.
“It’s the friends you can call at 4 a.m....” the advice went.
I had called. The greatest friend of all—and his network of followers—had answered.
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